Saturday 3 December 2016

Quality journalism or your money back

Published 31/01/2016 | 02:30

‘If something is very useful for people, they are happy to pay — every story needs to be useful’. Picture posed
‘If something is very useful for people, they are happy to pay — every story needs to be useful’. Picture posed

Blendle, the iTunes for journalism, has been busy. Last September, the pay-per-story journalism platform expanded into Germany with 37 publications. It now has more than half a million registered users in Europe and the majority of them are under 35. Now it's planning to make it big in America, with reports circulating that it will be teaming up with the New York Times, the Wall Street Journal, the Economist, the Washington Post and others early this year.

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So how does it work? Well, Blendle offers users an ad-free reading experience, but they've got to pay a small amount to access any article. The publisher sets the price and gets 70pc of the revenues generated from readers who pay to access content.

Blendle also has a social element: users can see what their friends have read and have recommended. Plus, celebrity content curators - including journalists, politicians and radio DJs - share their top stories. On top of that, a daily email is pinged to users that helps them discover the journalism they like that may not show up in their Facebook feed.

But Blendle also has another key selling point: it offers refunds to unhappy readers who aren't happy with what they've paid for and perused. This money-back guarantee is a key part of Blendle's offering according to Marten Blankesteijn, one of Blendle's founders.

"Most of our users are very young and many pay for journalism online for the first time in their lives," he says. "So the refund feature is crucial to show them that it's actually worth it for them to pay for journalism.

"We built a mechanism to prevent abuse, but what's interesting, we almost never need it, because there is almost zero abuse of this feature. Our users really appreciate it, if they discover an amazing new story."

Blendle has just released some data on the best-performing stories of its first four months in the German market. The best sellers feature a Harvard nutritionist discussing how terrible the modern diet is and the future of food; a review of dating app Tinder; a popular TV personality's take on current affairs; and a feature on what the Middle East might look like in 2035.

But just to prove the importance of the refund feature, Blendle also produced a list of the most popular, least refunded stories from German publishers. The top three are an analysis of Isil propaganda, which cost 25c and had a 2pc refund rate; a profile of the 21-year-old wunderkind behind Blockchain, which cost 89c and had a 2.6pc refund rate; and a look at how large corporations produce 'organic' food, which cost 25c and had a 3.2pc refund rate.

Not surprisingly, no absolute numbers were given on paying consumers, but Blankesteijn says the overall refund rate is just under 10pc.

Mostly, the list comprises stories that add a layer of qualitative analysis on top of the news. People aren't paying for news, they're paying for journalism that explains and contextualises the news.

"There's a variety of stories that do very well," says Blankesteijn. "If something is very useful for people, they're happy to pay for it. If they can't get the same or a similar story for free, that's when they don't hesitate to pay for it and don't refund the money. The bottom line is that every story needs to be useful; it needs to either make the reader smarter, entertain them or give them actionable learnings for their own life. That's why analysis, background, columns and service stories do very well on Blendle.

"Clickbait just doesn't work on Blendle," Blankesteijn adds. "We've even tried it in our own newsletter and it just doesn't work. If a story doesn't really deliver on the promise in the headline, there will be high refund rates."

Has Blendle noticed a difference between what works in Germany and Holland?

"Actually, a lot of the stories that move people in both right now have to do with Europe and are similar," says Blankesteijn. "So there's a lot of smart analysis about integrating refugees into communities, the challenges facing Europe and the recent events in Cologne."

Blendle now faces the challenge of applying these learnings in the US market for an English-speaking audience. The company is secure in the knowledge that it has the backing of publishers on both sides of the Atlantic. Last year, Axel Springer and the New York Times invested a combined €3m to take a 23pc stake in the company. So it knows it has the backing of publishers.

The company can also be confident that it's entering a market where there is a substantial demand for home delivery and newspaper subscriptions from consumers - just as there is in Germany and the Netherlands. Readers across America are used to paying for journalism. And if Blendle can get younger American audiences in the habit of paying for content online, notwithstanding the odd refund, it may just break America.

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